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Pennsylvania voter ID law sent back to lower court

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court on Tuesday called for more hearings on whether a new Republican-backed voter-ID law can be implemented this fall without disenfranchising voters who currently lack the needed photo identification.

The decision drew sharp rebukes from two of the six justices. They said it was already clear that some legitimate voters could not secure the needed ID in time for the election.

“I have heard enough about the Commonwealth’s scramble to meet this law’s requirements,” wrote Justice Debra McCloskey Todd. “There is ample evidence of disarray in the record, and I would not allow chaos to beget chaos.”

Pennsylvania’s law, passed this spring on a strictly partisan vote and signed by Gov. Tom Corbett (R), is one of the most restrictive in the country in terms of the specific kind of photo ID required and the documentation needed to secure an ID.

Because of Pennsylvania’s historic role as a battleground state, the law has taken a prominent role in the voting wars that have swamped the country’s courts this year.

Republicans in the legislature, concerned about machine politics in Philadelphia, have said the photo-ID requirement is necessary to combat voter fraud.

Democrats note that the state has not proved such fraud exists and argue that the real purpose is to make it harder for urban, poor and minority voters, who are more likely than others to lack the kind of specific ID the law requires.

Their position, they say, was reinforced when House Majority Leader Mike Turzai (R) listed the law as an accomplishment at a meeting of GOP activists.

“Voter ID — which is going to allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania — done,” he said.

Commonwealth Court Judge Robert Simpson said Turzai’s “boastful” comment was regrettable but added that requiring photo ID was not particularly burdensome, and he expressed confidence that Pennsylvania officials could provide proper ID to otherwise qualified voters in time for the election.

But the Supreme Court majority was not sure that goal could be met. The law could well be constitutional in the long run, it said, but could disenfranchise voters in the coming election.

It returned the case to Simpson and told him to conduct a hearing and rule by Oct. 2 on whether the state would be able to provide IDs to all eligible voters who wanted them.

“We are not satisfied with a mere predictive judgment based primarily on the assurances of government officials, even though we have no doubt they are proceeding in good faith,” the court said in an unsigned opinion.

“If the Commonwealth Court is not still convinced in its predictive judgment that there will be no voter disenfranchisement arising out of the Commonwealth’s implementation of a voter identification requirement for purposes of the upcoming election, that court is obliged to enter a preliminary injunction,” the opinion said.

David Gersch, a Washington lawyer who is helping to represent individuals and groups challenging the law, said they will be able to show considerable confusion and delay in the state’s efforts to provide the IDs.

“Given the effort to try to shoehorn this in on a very short time frame, that’s understandable,” Gersch said.

Corbett said in a statement that he was pleased that the court “recognized that we have been working hard and in good faith” to implement the law. He said the state will continue to help voters obtain the required identification.

The elected Supreme Court is evenly divided between three Democrats and three Republicans, with one justice not participating because she is facing charges on an unrelated issue.

Todd and another Democrat, Seamus McCaffery, said the court should have delayed implementation of the law without sending it back to lower courts.

McCaffery said he had no argument with the requirement that Pennsylvania show photo ID at some point in the future. But he said it is “clear to me that the reason for the urgency of implementing [the law] prior to the November 2012 election is purely political.”

Robert Barnes has been a Washington Post reporter and editor since 1987. He has covered the Supreme Court since November 2006.

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